OLATUNJI AYOOLA: The Craft of Nigeria’s Avant-garde Tailor

Olatunji Ayoola

A poster boy for ‘everything is possible’. A perfect testimony of ‘never say never’. His face beams with a smile. His dexterous fingers caress the fabrics as they unfurl. He runs his fingers through their texture feeling the aesthetics. He slides his scissors through them, cut into bits and pieces. Creases form on his brow, rising and falling. His eyes light up as the clothes begin to take a life of their own. He is an IT guru. But here he sits atop a grand tailoring outfit. Olatunji Ayoola is Nigeria’s unsung avant-garde tailor. Funke Olaode explores his mastery of the craft

Olatunji Ayoola’s name resonates in the technology and banking sectors. He had been there, done that for almost three decades. As an IT expert, he traversed over 30 countries. Though born by an affluent father, he lived his childhood life in penury. In 2010, by accident of fate, he dabbled into tailoring and established Couture Simplymenz, a dedicated male apparel outfit in Lagos.

His clothing outfit located on the highbrow area of Surulere in the heart of Lagos is befitting of a visionary. Posh, neat and cozy with cream paints. Several multimillion-naira industrial machines litter his upscale office, reminding you of an avant-garde tailoring outfit in Italy or France. Welcome to Couture Simplymenz, a dedicated male apparel outfit owned by an economist and technology expert but who is now a tailor.

Olatunji Ayoola, an indigene of Oyo town in is a self-made man. As a matter of fact, luxurious life was far from his early life in a remote village where he was raised by an aunt.

“Growing up wasn’t that fantastic in spite of the fact that I was born by a very rich father. It was very tough and challenging because of polygamy. It was as if the children from my mother’s side were hated by everybody in the family. We were made to work extraordinarily hard. For instance, they would wake us up by 3 am to prepare pap for our paternal grandmother. We would hawk the pap first thing in the morning. My half-siblings would be chauffeur-driven to school.

“After hawking the pap we would come back, take our bath and trek to a school that is about seven miles away. We would trek back home in the afternoon. After eating we would hawk again after which I would go to my father’s tailoring shop,” Ayoola narrates.

Despite what life threw at him, he realized that he had to be strong. “It was a phase which I didn’t know when it was going to end. I just summoned up the courage that I had to make it in life. It was a pushing force. It might interest you that in spite of what I went through I got to school and dozed off. My teachers knew and they would not wake me up,” he adds.

Nevertheless, Ayoola was intellectually endowed. “Well, I am a beneficiary of grace. In every step and every facet of my life, I could see the hands of divine grace everywhere. I wouldn’t say I was hard-working or perfect, or I was intelligent but I see the totality of my life as an expression of God’s grace,” Ayoola acknowledges.

Born May 1, 1960, Ayoola attended Atan Baptist Primary School, Oyo where he came out in flying colours. After his primary education, he was admitted to Federal Government College, Warri in 1971.

“I took the admission letter to my dad with excitement. He asked me to go and spend some time in the village and by the time the holiday was over, I would go for the admission. It was the beginning of the end because I spent several years in that village with the hope of furthering my education expressly defeated,” the avant-garde tailor recounts.

Having missed the Warri admission, he spent the next five years in the village assisting his paternal aunt and her husband on a farm. His day of liberation came when he fell sick. It was pneumonia.

He narrates further, “I was in that village praying for a miracle. One day, the couple went to another village and before they came back their neighbours picked me up and put me in a lorry which dropped me at my mother’s place in Oyo town. I spent some time in the hospital in Oyo. I was taken to Baptist Hospital in Ogbomoso where I got better. I came back in 1975 and started looking for a school. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any secondary school admission that year. Obviously, by then some of my mates were already in the first year at the university.

“That was the reason I was 21 years old when I finished secondary school. I enrolled at Awe Secondary School in 1976 and left in 1971. Incidentally, I had a very small stature wasn’t looking different from other students. Nothing differentiated me. Again, I had a focus, target, and goal and was more bothered by the dream and what life has thrown me into.”

Though education eluded him for six years his spirit was not dampened.

“I didn’t give up and every opportunity I had in the village I was refreshing my brain, reading and collecting books from pupils in the village. In fact, by the time I came out of the remote setting I was much better because I could speak English flawlessly. I could do so many things. I went to secondary school as a mature student. I made seven credits in my O’ Levels before I got to Form Five. I did my ‘A’ Levels at Olivet Baptist School Oyo.”

After his O’ level, Ayoola went to the University of Ibadan where he studied Economics. While at UI, most of his elective courses were from the computer science and statistics department. He ended up becoming an adept computer programmer before he finished his first degree in Economics.

Ayoola spent 22 years in the banking sector and retired in 2006.

“I graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1986 and had my youth service at the Federal Polytechnic, Ida in the then Benue State now in Kogi State where I taught Computer Science. I came back and got a teaching appointment at The Polytechnic, Ibadan. Later, I joined a computer engineering firm in Lagos as a trainee computer engineer. I went to the University of Ife for a postgraduate diploma in Computer Science. Then, did a master’s degree in Computer Science and MBA all between 1988 and 1992.

After his academic foray at Ife, he joined Nigeria Arab Bank and later moved to United Commercial Bank. From the banking sector, he joined ICLFUJITSU, a computer engineering firm in Nigeria and was later seconded to the United Kingdom office. While in the ICT world, Ayoola traversed 35 countries deploying ICT knowledge.

He returned from the UK and moved to Union Bank as a senior manager. Ayoola left the bank as principal manager/head of system support. He is currently studying for a doctorate in Computer Science at a university in the United States.

Ayoola grew up learning the ropes of tailoring in his father’s shop. Although he didn’t show interest, he was compelled to embrace it. Fifty years after, the economist and computer guru is today doing what he didn’t dream of doing.

“There was an accidental event around 2010. I went to make a dress and the tailor damaged it. I got there and asked him to give me scissors, tape rule, ruler and I started cutting. By the time I finished cutting and wanted to sew it, I realized that he uses industrial machine and had to look for a tailor who had a manual machine to make that dress,” says Ayoola.

That singular episode marked a turning point in his life. The tailor eventually became one of his first set of staff: Couture SimplyMenz was birthed. Over the last 10 years, he has clothed governors, captains of industry, industrial giants and still counting. He has also become a source of encouragement to many younger people who want to pursue their dreams.

To further horn his skills, Ayoola shoved aside his various degrees and headed to France and Italy to acquire more knowledge in tailoring.

“I have had both formal and informal training. I spent about 25 days with a tailoring outfit in France. I spent another 11 days with a tailoring outfit in Italy in 2015. I have attended several courses. Again, if I find a tailor whether popular or not and I know he has knowledge that can be beneficial to me I wouldn’t mind going to him to seek that knowledge. I wouldn’t mind paying for it. If you want to grow in life you must be ready to learn,” he explains.

But what makes Couture SimplyMenz tick? It makes only male apparels,” he explains. “Up till now I still don’t believe in having a brochure or catalogue because I don’t want to be repeating concepts. I want what I made for everybody to be unique to that person. It is natural. I do a lot of designs at any time I have up to 500 designs that I have not used.”

Couture SimplyMenz apparel prices don’t come cheap because it focuses more on the upper echelon of society.

Ayoola says further, “I try to put a lot of detail into what I do and this takes a lot of time and resources. I believe in looking for customers who can afford what I do. I want them to put on my clothes and appear different wherever they go with the quality of my fabrics. I bring my fabrics from Europe which is expensive and unique. I have been to various fora where they discuss the health implication of sub-standard fabrics which our people rush to because it is cheap.

“If you are somebody who doesn’t want to get to an event and see two or three people wearing the same fabric. Those are the people we cater for both in concept and fabrics. For instance, you can get dressed up with N40,000 or even lower depending on the quality of fabrics. You can as well get a kaftan that would cost you N500, 000. I just got a delivery of fabric from the UK. It comes at £185 per meter that means 10 yards with full agbada will be close to N800,000 and by the time you add up the embroidery and detailing it is close to N1 million. As I said, our clients trust and believe in us. So it has been good from Bode Thomas in Surulere and now to Falolu Road in the same neighbourhod. We are getting better and bigger.”

It takes a determined heart to go through difficult life journeys, but for Ayoola, he came, he saw and he conquered.

“It may sound like a cliché, the first lesson is that your background should not put your back on the ground. Against all odds, be focused, be determined and don’t allow anything to stop you from pursuing your goal. Again, discover your destiny early. I am an economist, an ICT expert and now a tailor. I didn’t do much of economics because as an undergraduate I was deep into software development and have been to every faculty of computer science as an engineer, computer analyst, and data-based operator. I have worked in several countries of the world deploying information technology solutions,” he reveals.

Ayoola is still waxing stronger: his passion is worth its weight in pure gold.